The short answer to this question is “Yes, with some caveats.” Japan is a place, like Europe, that I figured I could always travel in my golden years, when money is less an issue and security and convenience are more important. But when given the option of extending our layover in Japan for free, we couldn’t pass it up. The post below will detail our flight there, accommodations, in-country travel, food, and activities, for which I’ll outline how much we spent, the ways in which we made our time in Japan as cost-effective as possible, and other ways to further reduce spending. Japan isn’t for the ultra-budget conscious end of econotravelers, but it can be reasonable, as I’ll share below.
Flights to Japan from the US are not the most expensive flights you can get (Africa and the Middle East, or remote areas like Micronesia likely take the cake on that front), but they are not cheap either. Because we are flying on United, we were able to, using the online booking system, no less, create what’s called an “open-jaw” reservation, which allows one to extend their layover somewhere within that reservation for free. For us, the open-jaw took us from the US, to Micronesia, and then to South Korea. (If you look at the route those flights take, TUS-PNI-ICN, it resembles an [obtuse] angle, which in the airline industry is called an “open-jaw”. The same layover extension rule applies to round trip international flights.). We booked those flights using 50,000 United miles (35,000 to PNI and 15,000 to ICN) that were accumulated on our United Explorer and Chase Sapphire cards. This enabled us to extend any one of our layovers for free for however long we wanted (I believe up to six months). Of all the places we had layovers: San Francisco, Tokyo, Guam, and Shanghai, Japan seemed the easiest – no visa requirement, unlike China – and the most interesting. So, we flew there for free, basically…a fringe benefit of a decent credit score and a job, one of which I no longer have.
In terms of our accommodations, we had a private room every night (other than the night we climbed Mt. Fuji, when we didn’t sleep), none of which cost more than $50. We booked all of our rooms online in advance using booking.com, hostels.com, and agoda.com. Agoda seemed to have the best deals, but I didn’t find out about it until we had already arrived in Kyoto. Our room costs ranged from $37/night to $48/night. The $37 room was a simple yet tasteful double room in at Kyoto’s Guesthouse Hannari with a bunk bed and a shared bath. The $48 room was an apartment at Kyoto Ann Apartments, fully outfitted with a double bed, desk and chairs, private bath, full kitchen, and a washing machine. I think that we might have been the first people to ever stay in the room, actually, as the stickers were still on the appliances and everything looked and smelled brand new. That may very well be the nicest place we stay our entire trip and was discounted nearly 50% on Agoda. We were hoping to stay in one of Japan’s famous capsule (casket-esque) rooms, but felt a more comfortable stay was needed after our “No Sleep till Fuji” mission, opting for a standard private room instead. Total cost for accommodations: $375 for an average of $21 per person/night, or $23 if you take out the no-cost Fuji night.
Getting around in Japan is easily the most frustrating thing about the country, as is the case with many foreign places. The subway systems in Tokyo are the world’s largest, most crowded, and most complex, while the bus system in Kyoto is actually even more confusing, considering the current map is inaccurate and the bus stops are arbitrarily placed around intersections. The wise traveler should study transit maps ahead of her arrival, but should also bear in mind that, some of the time, those maps are not always entirely on point. Given the high population density and cost of oil in Japan, most of its citizens utilize public transit, which is why the systems are so large and complex. With that said, local transit is not expensive, as a 24-hour subway pass in Tokyo costs only $5, as does an all-day bus pass in Kyoto. Japan is also famous for its bullet trains, which are like flying in a plane…on the ground, and are priced accordingly. The fastest of these whiz by at an astounding 300 km/hr (185+ mph), a speed akin to some small planes and cost about $130 for a 2:30 hour trip. We took the fastest of these bullets, the Shinkansen Nozomi from Tokyo to Kyoto and again back up to Fuji ($106). Booking a JR Rail pass ahead of time will allow you to ride all the JR rails (just not the fastest trains) for $260/week. If you plan to travel outside of Tokyo, you should check this out as it may save you some money, or look at taking night buses, which are even cheaper. Including the cost of transit to and from the airport ($10/person each way) and the buses to reach the Mt. Fuji trailhead and back to Tokyo ($133), we spent $740 on transportation, which equates to $37 per person/day, by far, our most significant expense.
One of the most memorable things about Japan was its food. From home cooked dashi soup and sushi (at a cooking class we took), to traditional plates out, to bento boxes at the grocer, all the food was fresh, tasty, and, in Japanese fashion, exquisitely presented. For the most part, we ate out one meal per day, and got bento boxes and snacks from small grocery/convenience stores (even 7-11 has good bentos!)/street markets for the other meals. Some of the most expensive meals I saw in Japan went for $125-$250 per plate in the Gion district of Kyoto, so the conventional wisdom about Japan being outrageously expensive does deserve some merit. However, with surprisingly little effort on our part, we were able to find meals out for between $7-12 per person. The bento boxes from grocery stores ranged from $3-5, which allowed us to sample some fun drinks and desserts too. The cooking class was undoubtedly the culinary high point of our trip and cost $58 per person, but was well worth it for the experience. However, for the purposes of our calculations, I’m including the cooking class below in our activities. In all, our food costs were about $320 (estimated), amounting to a (shockingly low for Japan) $16 per person/day. It helps that you can drink the water too; we filled up our Nalgenes every morning and had to buy only one bottle of water the entire time there.
Our legs got quite the workout in Japan, between walking its streets to climbing its mountains. Most of our activities were walking oriented and very reasonably priced. The most expensive was the aforementioned cooking class, followed by a cultural presentation for Geisha dancers, plays, and traditional instrumental music in Gion ($25/person). Much of the time in Japan, we walked around temples, gardens, and museums none of which cost more than $5 to enter. Actually, the most expensive thing we did in all of Japan was enter a Samurai weapons shop, as we walked out having purchased a long katana sword and a handful of throwing stars. As this was discretionary, it is being discounted from the final calculations, but it cost us about $300 for all the items and to ship the sword back to my parents’ house. I wish I could see the look on their faces in a couple days when they open up that package! Another integral part of our entertainment in Japan was walking about the local markets, always fun in foreign countries. This cost us nothing, except for the few small, inexpensive souvenirs and snacks we purchased along the way. Climbing Fuji cost us quite a bit in transportation but very little otherwise ($10 donation and $6 locker rental). Including the cooking class I mentioned above, the temples, museums, gardens, Fuji hike, and small souvenirs, we spent about $256 on activities, or $13 per person/day.
Aside from the sword, we spent about $1700 total in Japan over 10 days, which breaks down to $85 per person/day. Most of that went to transit (44%), followed by lodging (22%) and food (19%). Compared to the other countries on our itinerary, Japan will likely be the most expensive, but I found everything quite reasonable, with the possible exception of the bullet train. Can one travel in Japan more cheaply than we did? Absolutely. The two things that could have saved us money, aside from the discretionary spending on the cooking class and other souvenirs, would have been to take night buses and to eat only bento boxes. But we figured that bullet trains and Japanese cuisine are world famous for a reason! Is Japan the most expensive place to travel? Hell no. With all due respect to London (my expensive extended layover of last year’s summer vacation), I found Japan to be easily more interesting and more affordable. It’s obviously impossible to travel comfortably here for the same prices as say, places like Thailand or Guatemala, but can it be made affordable? You bet! I’ll probably compare the cost of travel in Japan to the other countries we go later in the trip, so stay tuned for those posts.